The virus and the unicorn

It was my new year’s wish in 2019 to see the first Turkish unicorn that year, but I was disappointed. These mythical creatures are startup companies with a value of over $1 billion. There was a long list of them created by the venture capital industry all around the world, hailing from developing and developed countries, and yet none had come from Turkey. Finally, last week, Zynga acquired the Istanbul-based Peak Games for $1.8 billion. It was none other than the coronavirus that brought the first unicorn to Turkey.

All those social distancing measures, of course, are bad for the economy overall, with many across the world losing their jobs. Yet the impact is asymmetrical if you look at it across sectors. We are all struck in our homes, unable to travel, stay at a hotel, have dinner with friends at a bar — but we can play games more than ever before. Many gaming consoles and related merchandise are sold out in the cities across the world. It’s the same home entertainment wave that Netflix and others are riding.

Yet I have to confess that the impact of the virus is asymmetric, not only across sectors but also between the haves and the have nots. The haves can afford to entertain themselves in the safety of their spacious homes. The have nots have increasing difficulties in earning their livelihoods and have to expose themselves to the danger of contraction. Globally, it’s the developing and emerging countries that are worst hit. It’s the growing number of temporary workers in our new “gig” economy everywhere and, of course, the forced migrants that are the worst hit, I may say. We are back at the “wretched of the earth” discourse, and it is becoming more obvious every day.

China first warned us about the sheer biological danger of the virus. Now the protests in the U.S. are an early warning for all of us around the world on the negative social impact of the virus. What is happening there seems to go beyond the usual anger against racial discrimination, it is a revolt of the systematically dispossessed. This should not come as a surprise. There are more than 20 million people who lost their jobs in the U.S. as a result of the pandemic and feel left behind by an economy that is increasingly digital and insulated. I tend to think that the new gig economy with growing share of temporary jobs is bad for economic and social sustainability.

In Turkey, virus or not, the first Turkish unicorn is a legitimate cause for celebration. Looking for a reason for the success of the Peak Games? A seasoned analyst of the Turkish venture capital industry Ussal Sahbaz said the other day that “video games are a business totally unregulated in Turkey.” This is much like the conversation between Alexander the Great and Diogenes, mind you. The emperor asked the philosopher if there was anything he could do for him. “Yes” said Diogenes, “stand a little out of my sun.” No wonder that the first Turkish unicorn is found in a totally unregulated terrain. The challenge we face is to find a way to balance that creative space against the need to stick together in times of hardship, and take care of each other.

This commentary was published in Hürriyet Daily News on 06.06.2020

Originally published at




Notes from Turkey and its vicinity: It’s the economy, stupid

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Notes from Turkey and its vicinity: It’s the economy, stupid

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